Every October, just in time for Halloween, the A.V. Club implores a connoisseur of the creepy to program a hypothetical movie marathon—a full 24 hours of seasonably spooky genre fare, curated and sequenced for the viewing pleasure of brave readers. Having already pried lists from such horror experts as Joe Dante, Edgar Wright, and, uh, Kerry King of Slayer, we thought we’d try something a little different this year. The following marathon was a group effort: Each of the 14 films comes recommended by a different director, all of whom are at least relatively new to the genre.
This New Vanguard Of Horror, as we’ve chosen to trendily call it, includes first-time filmmakers, a few converts to the scaring industry, and several directors who contributed shorts to this autumn’s anthology sequel ABCs Of Death 2 (available on demand now and coming to theaters, fittingly, on October 31). The resulting list includes everything from classics to obscurities to films that stretch the definition of horror (including one we vehemently recommend you don’t seek out). Those looking for a unifying principle won’t find one, but there are plenty of trends to spot—among them, an appreciation for an exiled Polish master whose influence over the current generation of horror upstarts can’t be overstated. As always, readers are encouraged to try this at home—though this time, that will require some serious digging and some strong constitutions.
“An atmospheric haunted-house mystery that mixes classically constructed shocks into the world of today,” is how The A.V. Club described The Pact, the debut feature by Nicholas McCarthy. The director’s sophomore effort, At The Devil’s Door, hit theaters this fall. To kick off the marathon, McCarthy called upon a staple of his own multi-hour movie nights: the 1977 cult favorite The Car.
Nicholas McCarthy: I used to screen all-night movie marathons for my friends in high school and The Car was kind of a perennial. It’s a great party movie. It’s absurd, so people laugh. But it’s also strangely compelling. And it’s really well directed by this guy named Elliot Silverstein. But most importantly for Halloween, it features—for my money—one of the great movie monsters of all time, which is this car. The car itself is some kind of modified Lincoln Continental that they made look more sinister. The guy who actually designed it, George Barris, also designed the original Batmobile and a lot of other cars. And this car is so awesome and sinister. I know that I’m not alone in my love of this demonic car. Guillermo Del Toro commissioned a replica of it so he could drive it around. He featured it in that Simpsons opening he did. He’s a fan. He’s just a fan with a little more money than I have.
Make no mistake: It’s a ridiculous movie. But it’s also really unique and holds this power. And I’ve watched it for so many years that it ended up being one of the big influences on the last film I made, which is the kind of thing you can never tell a producer, that your influence is this… you know, The Car is considered a kind of bad film. But at the end of the day, the thing that really interests me about is that it’s unique, and I think it’s unique because the guy who made it used to do Westerns. And he had made films that had won Oscars in the 1960s. He made Cat Ballou with Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda. And here he was, asked to direct a movie about a demonic car killing people. Traditionally, I actually think the best horror movies—or I should say the most influential ones—are the ones made by people who are not fans of horror, like modern classics such as Rosemary’s Baby, Night Of The Living Dead, and Halloween.
The A.V. Club: The Shining.
NM: Yeah, The Shining is a great example. Probably every one of those movies was made by a director who needed a paycheck. Including The Shining. And that’s not to say that they were suspending their powers as a director. But all of those guys—Kubrick, Romero, Carpenter, Polanski—ended up giving the genre something special. They were outsiders. Elliot Silverstein was probably a guy not much interested in doing horror films, much less one about Satan driving a car and running people on 10-speed bikes off the road. Overall, there are other driverless car movies, but it’s the daddy of driverless car movies.
AVC: The film seems to have this Vanishing Point vibe to it.
NM: It comes from that 1970s car-chase movie subgenre. So many of those movies, like Vanishing Point, were shot in the desert close to L.A., because they had these big, wide, picturesque stretches of open road that cars could race down. And The Car is exactly that. I had never made that association, but it is kind of a horror version of one of those ’70s car-chase movies. But I will say that it also, plainly, a cash-in ripoff of Jaws. But instead of a shark, it’s a car. There was a journalist I spoke to who said he interviewed Josh Brolin. And you know, James Brolin is the ’70s mustached sheriff of the town in The Car. And Josh said, “Oh, yeah. I love The Car. My dad was in it. I would star in a remake of it.” And so, I think that’s my dream project. [Laughs.] We’ll get Del Toro to executive produce.
1:40 p.m.: Repulsion (1965)
Horror of a distinctly pathological bent is the M.O. of Zack Parker, whose latest film, Proxy, is almost Hitchcockian in its manipulation of audience expectations and sympathies. (A.V. Club contributor Mike D’Angelo has called it one of the best movies of the year.) Appropriately, Parker has selected perhaps cinema’s premier psychological thriller for his contribution to the marathon.
Zack Parker: Repulsion is by far one of my favorite horror films, and it’s one of the most consistently effective horror films that exists. I’ve always felt like Polanski is the master of creating palpable atmosphere out of seemingly nothing. There’s a great tension and impending dread in that film, yet the execution is so simple. It’s just one of those cinematic miracles that shouldn’t work but does. And I can’t think of a film that better portrays a mental unraveling and the paranoia of its characters. It’s perfectly paced. Like all great films, every scene and moment has a very specific purpose to the narrative.
AVC: There are some huge scares in the film. You can show it to people today and it still gets under their skin.
ZP: It’s amazing how well it continues to work. I can’t believe that it hasn’t been remade yet, actually. I’m surprised no one has done that. It has such a loyal cult following.
AVC: It’s certainly been unofficially remade. You can see its influence in a lot of contemporary horror films, including your own Proxy.
ZP: I’m definitely quite fascinated with human, mental deconstruction, and how that’s portrayed on film. I enjoy very quiet, introverted performances. Audiences have to figure out what’s going on behind the eyes and minds of characters. That’s definitely something I’m always kind of striving for in my films. I’m also really fascinated with real people going through really horrific circumstances. And that’s where the horror stems from.
AVC: Do you like the rest of Polanski’s so-called Apartment Trilogy, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant?
ZP: Rosemary’s Baby would probably be one of my top five films of all time. The execution of that is near perfect. It’s creating these near-perfect moments and this dense atmosphere out of this minimalist filmmaking. But there’s something grittier about Repulsion that makes me like it more. It’s a little earlier in his career and you can tell he’s experimenting more, and Rosemary’s Baby is a little more polished and refined. But I kind of like the grittier quality.
Polanski is an interesting filmmaker, because in my mind, he’s very hit and miss. There are films of his that are masterpieces and are some of the best-made films of all time. And then there are some that just don’t work nearly as well. I’ve never been a particular fan of Pirates. I struggled through Tess, too. And even The Fearless Vampire Killers, I couldn’t get into the comedy. I guess I prefer when he’s in that The Ninth Gate world.
One of the most unconventional, least predictable selections in the marathon comes from Rodney Ascher, whose chief contribution to the horror genre has been a documentary: The fascinating Room 237, which entertains the outlandish conspiracy theories posited by a group of superfans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ascher makes a leap out of dissecting horror and into staging it with “Questionnaire,” his segment in ABCs Of Death 2.
AVC: You’re supplying the third film for the marathon. So far, we have The Car and Repulsion.
Rodney Ascher: The Car? Have you been talking to Nicholas McCarthy?
AVC: Sure have. He’s talked to you about The Car too, huh?
RA: [Laughs.] I watched it at his house!
AVC: Sounds like it could be a tough act to follow. What do you have for us?
RA: I’m going to go with the 1980 TV version of The Martian Chronicles, specifically episode one, “The Expeditions.” As I’ve been getting older, I’ve been revisiting things that scared the hell out of me as a kid. What’s been kind of awesome is that, more often than not, they continue to scare the hell out of me. It happened with an episode of Lost In Space where Penny got trapped on the other side of a mirror. And then I found the DVD of The Martian Chronicles at a lawn sale for two bucks. It’s just crazy. There are three stories in it, each part of a long miniseries. And they’re all horrifying and eerie and creepy—and made especially so because of their look and feel. There’s really a TV quality to them and in a way, the aesthetic of it owes a lot to The Love Boat or Fantasy Island. Only it goes horribly, horribly, horribly wrong.
In the mid-section, a rocket lands on Mars. And it looks more or less like the traditional sci-fi conception of Mars. They take a turn and find themselves in some small Midwestern town where one of them grew up. And his family comes out to visit him. “Oh, we’ve missed you so much. Why don’t you come back to the house.” And the other astronauts are like, “No, this is kind of a bad idea.” But he’s so happy to see his family. And he’s got one brother who died and another is back alive. He goes off with them. And clearly, there must be some part of him that knows he’s making a horrible mistake. I think of the scene in Creepshow when Stephen King is turning into a fungus man and he’s itching so bad he has to get in the bathtub. He knows it’s a bad choice, but he makes it anyway! He can’t stop himself. And I think a lot of us, myself included, are fully conscious of when we’re making the worst mistakes of our lives.
As for the Martians, they’re the usual big, bald-head, grey aliens, and some of them are wearing togas and these really bizarre royal masks. It hit some weird part of my brain. Every once in a while I see something that creeps me out because there’s a déjà vu quality: I don’t know when I saw this before but it feels like something I dreamt about. I had the same reaction when I saw Brazil for the first time. It’s completely original, but it also seems so horribly familiar. I’m sitting at the TV and I’m watching a dream I forgot about years before.
AVC: Rock Hudson is in the first episode, right?
RA: He’s in all of them! And after I re-watched it, I wondered, “Who created this thing?” It was Richard Matheson, who did I Am Legend and Duel, alongside 100,000 amazing short stories. And Michael Anderson, who directed it, did The Dam Busters and Logan’s Run and Orca. There’s some really interesting people putting this thing together.
Alejandro Brugués broke onto the international horror scene with Juan Of The Dead, a sharp horror-comedy that uses the threat of a zombie apocalypse to ruthlessly satirize contemporary Cuban society. He also directed the “Equilibrium” short in ABCs Of Death 2.
AVC: Why did you pick The Fearless Vampire Killers? Is it a film that scares you? Is it a film that’s influenced you?
Alejandro Brugués: One of my earliest memories as a child is of watching this film. Obviously, at the time, I didn’t know anything about Polanski. I believe my parents let me see it because, to them, it was a comedy. But for me, it was really scary! At the time, I had probably never seen a vampire film, and I remember the vampires here were really scary, because they don’t just have fangs but a whole mouthful of teeth. They could bite everywhere. And I remember some scenes that really stuck with me at the time.
When I first got into film, my friends were watching all the stuff you’re supposed to be studying in film school. And I said, “I don’t want to watch those films. I want to watch the ones that made me love film as a kid, the ones that made me one day want to make films.” I wanted to see if I could find that feeling I had as a kid. And I didn’t even know the name, but I started to inquire about it, and when I finally found it, I was like, “Oh! It’s Roman Polanski! And I can tell my friends I’m watching a Roman Polanski film while they’re watching [Andrei] Tarkovsky, and they won’t make fun of me!” And when I rewatched it, I realized that it was a comedy. And a brilliant one. I think my love of the genre mix of horror and comedy dates back to watching this film as a kid. Of course, all the scenes that scared me as a kid are hilarious now.
AVC: Horror and comedy aren’t so different. Both provide setups and punchlines, so to speak.
AB: Yeah, both genres work on a very primal level. To be scared or to laugh are two very common emotions. It’s also hard to sell, though, because people don’t know if they’re supposed to be laughing or scared.
AVC: Studios and distributors often don’t know how to sell horror-comedies. Instead of suggesting the combination, they’ll just play up one quality—usually the horror.
AB: Yeah! I hate that, because you are fooling the audience. Some people might not see it, because they don’t want to be scared. I’ve had that happen to me, obviously, and people are like, “I don’t know, I don’t watch zombie films. I don’t like gore.” And I’m like, “Watch it. You’ll have a good time.” And they tell me, “You were right. It’s not what I thought.” I always say to myself, “How do I get my sister-in-law to watch this?”
AVC: You can definitely see a kinship between The Fearless Vampire Killers and your movie, Juan Of The Dead.
AB: When I’m trying to identify my influences, it always goes back to my very early childhood and the first films I saw. This was one. Evil Dead was another—the first one isn’t a comedy, but the sequel is. Evil Dead was actually my first choice for this, but I thought I’d go back a little further. I could have gone with Zombie, too, by Lucio Fulci. That kind of traumatized me as a kid.
AVC: Well, no kidding. There’s that scene of the wooden splinter piercing the woman’s eye.
AB: You know what? Someday, I’m going to try to top that in a film. I also remember seeing that as a kid. It was probably one of those nights when I woke up and my parents were asleep, and I turned on the TV. But I’m sticking with Killers. It’s Polanski. Like you said, there’s another pick by him. I think there’s a whole generation of us who grew up with those early Polanski films. I was born in ’76, but in Cuba, we probably got things a bit late. And those early films of his are a huge influence. Besides, when you think about those Polanski films from the ’60s, you think about those other choices! I don’t know why this is considered a lesser Polanski film. It’s so much fun!
Before getting hired to helm “Zygote,” the final of the 26 chapters in ABCs Of Death 2, Chris Nash had only three short films to his name—an acclaimed trifecta of grossness nicknamed The Skinfection Trilogy. Supposedly, he got the gig partially on the strength of an inebriated rant he wrote about the state of contemporary horror; his discerning tastes are reflected in his off-the-beaten-path selection for the marathon.
Chris Nash: It’s a low-budget regional film. It looks the budget, but the story is really good. A lot of times I try to sell this movie as a prequel to The Blair Witch Project, because it feels like the mythology could fit in exactly with that movie. It’s about a group of pioneers who are cast out of this settlement. So they feel like they’re under attack, and they end up settling in this area of the woods that is marked by all these native warning signs saying that there are evil spirits there. They figure, “Well, this native superstition is just mumbo jumbo, and nobody will come and try to find us.” But it turns out the woods are actually haunted by this evil witch. And even though it’s kind of low-budget, the performances—by pretty much all regional actors—really puts the best foot forward. I kind of love this movie.
AVC: How did you discover it?
CN: Just geeking out and digging. And looking on IMDB for recommendations. It’s got kind of a slow first 20 minutes; you never know quite what you’re watching. You actually think it’s an educational film produced in the ’70s, like something you’d see in a public school. But stick with it. It’s really rewarding. They’re so, so ambitious for the production value. The story is incredibly ambitious, beyond the means that they had.
AVC: In horror, there’s something useful about a cast of complete unknowns. You’re never distracted by recognizable faces.
CN: There is no celebrity to pull you out of this movie. It feels like the kind of movie that gets easily forgotten. And I guess it kind of was.
9 p.m.: Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Steven Kostanski, director of the very Kickpuncher-esque sci-fi comedy Manborg, hails from the Canadian production house Astron-6, which specializes in low-budget, retro-flavored, tongue-in-cheek genre hybrids. He also directed “Wish,” another of the short stories of terror contained within ABCs Of Death 2.
Steve Kostanski: It’s probably not as interesting as the other films you’ve programmed, but my pick is Hellraiser II.
AVC: Do you prefer it to the original?
SK: I do. Horror movies typically have a very contained scope or situation that they’re centered around. Hellraiser II stands out to me because it’s such a sprawling epic of a movie. It’s one of the few horror movies where they actually, literally go to hell. It’s such an epic vision, almost like The Lord Of The Rings of horror movies. And even though it doesn’t necessarily work on every level—there are certainly things about it that are dated, and things that don’t quite click—it’s got so much imagination and scale that I think it’s a commendable effort. I’m actually surprised at how many times I revisit that movie, just to see some of the crazy stuff that happens in it. And it really builds on the Hellraiser mythology.
AVC: You get more of the Cenobites, certainly. In some respects , it’s the ideal horror sequel, in that it takes what people liked about the original and brings it up to a new level.
SK: Yeah, but it doesn’t overdo it. I feel like you could look at Hellraiser III even to see how you can go too far with the concept and show too much of the Cenobites. Hellraiser II keeps the good atmosphere that the original established; it just moves it into a bigger universe. So the Cenobites still have some mystique to them, but you get to see them do more stuff. And there are just more exciting set pieces. The showdown with Dr. Channard, where he kills the Cenobites, is just a cool concept. It’s a very Terminator 2 situation; the villain you’re supposed to be scared of in the first movie has a hero moment. Stuff like that makes the film very endearing to me. It tries to go to these places where horror movies don’t really try to go.
AVC: Did you see it when you were really young?
SK: Yes. I watched those movies in a very weird order too. I watched Hellraiser four [Hellraiser: Bloodline] first—that’s the one that’s in space. At that age—I think I was, like, 12—that was the only one I could convince my mom to rent for me. I convinced her because of the space angle. I was like, “Well, it’s in space, it’s not going to be that bad.” So I watched [Hellraiser: Bloodline] , and then I watched two [Hellbound: Hellraiser II] , and then I watched three [Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth], and then I watched Hellraiser. And then I watched five [Hellraiser: Inferno] and six [Hellraiser: Hellseeker] on through to eight [Hellraiser: Hellworld]. To jump from the very modern ’90s tone of [Hellraiser: Bloodline] to the ’80s grit that [Hellbound: Hellraiser II] had was really shocking for me as a kid. I distinctly remember holding the case, the VHS box, and looking at the art that was just Pinhead and the female Cenobite. It was just a still of them and the title. That’s burned in my brain.
AVC: The process of finding a horror movie now is a lot different than it was during the heyday of video stores. We lost something when we lost extravagant VHS box-art.
SK: Yeah, I can remember that. Before I actually saw the movies, I had a phase—maybe up until I was 12—when I was too scared to even go into the horror-movie section. Just walking through it was almost too much. I remember seeing all the covers of the Hellraiser movies walking through, probably to get to the cartoons or something, I was a really little kid. And even that shocked me so much. Like, the idea that you could go and rent what I imagined to be tapes full of your worst nightmares. So when I finally did get to watch it, there was a little bit of a sense of overcoming my fears as well.
AVC: That’s also a big leap in quality from part four to part two. It’s weird that you watched the former and thought, “I want to see more of these.”
SK: Well, I have weird sensibilities. The idea of Hellraiser in space is really appealing. And I’m kind of sad that they don’t do that with movies anymore. That kind of cross-genre stuff is where you get a lot of fun, wacky ideas. And I actually don’t mind [Hellraiser: Bloodline] that much. You can tell that it got butchered in post. There’s a lot of things about that one that work to a certain extent. But it just doesn’t quite have the same tone that part two has. And then all that gets washed away with part three, which has the whole heavy-metal angle. Which feels like something I should like, but for some reason, I do not like Hellraiser III.
AVC: For a while there, every horror star eventually went to space. The Critters. The Leprechaun. Even Jason.
SK: Oh yeah. I remembered being so excited for Jason X, thinking, “This is it, finally. A Friday The 13th movie that speaks to me.” ’Cause I was never really a slasher-movie guy. So then taking that and transposing it onto another genre was appealing. Finally, they’re going to breathe some life into this concept! I remember going out and paying excessive amounts of money for the DVD, and being massively disappointed.
E.L. Katz’s opening entry in ABCs Of Death 2 is called “Amateur,” but his own work is plagued with few rookie mistakes. After writing a number of genre shorts over the past decade, Katz made his directorial debut with the wicked black comedy Cheap Thrills, about a couple of desperate, estranged friends competing for cash in an escalating series of sick dares. Any filmmaker capable of turning David Koechner, of Anchorman and The Office fame, into a force of sadistic danger earns his involvement in this project.
AVC: Neon Maniacs looks and sounds like a good choice for 11 p.m.
ELK: Yeah, that’s a good time for this one. There are no characters. It could wash over you in a way that might not work at 2 a.m. But at 11, when people are still feeling confident that they can go the whole time, it’s perfect.
Neon Maniacs is a perfect movie for a horror marathon. It was made during the ’80s, when slashers were big. And someone involved must have reasoned that if one monster made a lot of money, then 12 would make, like, 12 times as much money! These teenagers find this group of creatures living at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. And even though they’re supposed to be maybe the same species, and come from the same place, they’re all really different. Like, one is a samurai, for example.
So you have tons of monsters. And there’s great ’80s fashion and hair and the most ineffectual cops you’ve ever seen in a movie. They’re almost contemptuously ineffectual. They hate teenagers, they just want them to die. And at the ending, you get this really irresponsible school shoot-out scene, where the Neon Maniacs descend upon a prom. It’s just so good! And it moves really quick! I try to watch it once a year. It’s funny, too, the writer went on to write Pumpkinhead, which is actually a really good monster movie. You have one monster. So maybe he learned his lesson.
AVC: There’s almost a little-kid quality to that idea. How many different kinds of monsters and things can we get into this? It’s reminiscent of The Monster Squad and Waxwork.
ELK: I love all those movies. They’re not really scary. There’s almost something nostalgic and kind of cute about them. They’re goofy, reverent homages. But this doesn’t have any of that self-awareness. It has crudely made monsters which are cool to look at. But it’s also really offensive and tone-deaf and just not thought-out or savvy in any way. But if you like those kind of Waxwork movies, you’ll totally get a kick out of Neon Maniacs. It’s like a child wrote it, and then a robot directed it. It is one of my favorite things to watch. It makes me smile.
12:30 a.m.: Videodrome (1983)
2:15 a.m: Hungry Bitches (2007)
At the midway mark, just after midnight, our custom marathon takes a turn for the self-reflexive with two films about sights that can’t be unseen. Jerome Sable, director of the cheeky horror-musical Stage Fright, recommends David Cronenberg’s cautionary tale Videodrome. And Nicholas Musurca, who wrote Sable’s contribution to ABCs Of Death 2 (“Vacation”), ups the ante by suggesting what has to be the most disturbing film in the lineup. Below, the two riff like college roommates on their choices. Fair warning: We cannot in good conscience suggest you subject a room full of guests to the true horrors of Hungry Bitches.
AVC: What have you guys got for us?
Jerome Sable: Well, we don’t generally watch movies. [Laughs.] No, it’s funny, though, that you mentioned Repulsion as one of the movies being programmed. They sent us over the list earlier and the guy wrote it as Expulsion. And I was doing all this research on the movie Expulsion. And it turns out that it was a film from the 1920s. But it’s officially considered lost. Like, I don’t think you can access it anywhere. And I was, like, wow. This is really obscure. We can’t be obvious with this one. [Laughs.] They’re literally recommending movies that don’t exist in the world anymore.
We were talking about this in the context of our short for ABCs Of Death. We were thinking about trying to make a video that might be somewhat disturbing to people who watch it. And the idea of seeing something that can’t be unseen. And this of course goes back to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Way before The Ring was Videodrome, about a television show that would totally change you and suck you in in very traumatizing ways. Some of the people in Videodrome are sort of smart enough not to watch. Like my mom, she won’t watch our ABCs Of Death entry.
Nicholas Musurca: Yeah, my parents won’t watch it either.
JS: No matter how much we try. I feel like Videodrome, in many ways, is just about the horrors of Toronto.
NM: Well, everyone in the film talks about how this is a program that’s going to affect the “mind of North America.” As if people in America are watching Canadian movies. Nice thought, if you’re a Toronto filmmaker.
JS: Wow. Wow. Wow. Heckle us right away. The patriotic American who obviously recites the Pledge Of Allegiance everyday before he goes to work.
NM: Well, I make Jerome do it. We start every work day by reciting it. It’s a nice way to begin, I think.
JS: I think that the “horrors of Toronto” is not necessarily a comment on Canadian cinema. It’s just that terrible things could happen to you in Toronto. That’s the point that Cronenberg was trying to make. Not that Canada deserves to be insulted.
NM: But he also says that the ultimate horror is emanating from Pittsburgh. You know, he says, “See you in Pittsburgh.” Which I absolutely agree with. Pittsburgh is a terrifying place.
AVC: It is a potent idea: Something so terrifying that once you watch, it sort of infects your brain.
JS: Nick, weren’t you going to choose “2 Girls, 1 Cup” for your entry?
NM: Yeah. Honestly, that was the original inspiration for our ABCs Of Death short. We were like, “What’s commercial? What do people like?” And we thought of “2 Girls, 1 Cup.” Everybody can’t stop watching it!
JS: But nobody dies in “2 Girls, 1 Cup.”
AVC: Our innocence dies when we watch it.
NM: I’m concerned about those girls in terms of infection, but I don’t think anyone died on-screen. But actually the thing is, “2 Girls, 1 Cup” is not actually my choice. People don’t realize that that’s the trailer for the feature film Hungry Bitches.
JS: That’s what I’m saying. This whole interview piece is full of people referencing obscure movies that nobody has heard of. Hungry Bitches? What are you going to say next, Expulsion?
NM: Well, it is kind of about expulsion. [Laughs.]
AVC: I think there’d be some walkouts if anyone actually programmed this one.
NM: Well, I hope so. If you’re doing a 24-hour Halloween movie marathon, I think it’s cool to throw that in, just to break up the monotony a little. It can’t all be slasher films. It will be a challenge to find, though. I know you can find it on torrent websites. I feel kind of bad recommending that. Obviously, if you can support the filmmakers by purchasing Hungry Bitches through iTunes, you should definitely do that instead.
JS: As artists, we always try to pay before we play.
NM: Whether it’s Stage Fright or Hungry Bitches, support independent film.
JS: What an honor to be on that short list of yours.
3:30 a.m.: Black Christmas (1974)
“BAAABBBAAADOOOOKKKK.” That guttural utterance is sure to haunt the nightmares of anyone brave enough to watch The Babadook, a psychologically acute Aussie chiller about the storybook monster haunting a widow and her troubled child. The film doesn’t open Stateside until late November, but we were lucky enough to land an interview with its director, Jennifer Kent, whose fledgling contribution to the genre hints at great things to come—and an impeccable taste in scary movies.
Jennifer Kent: It was torturous picking one! But I chose Black Christmas. It’s an underpublicized gem. And I’m obviously talking about the 1974 film, not the remake. The one directed by Bob Clark. It’s considered one of the early slashers, one of the first slashers. But when I think back to it, I can’t even remember the murders. I just remember that house. The film makes me want to go and put a coat on! [Laughs.] It’s so cold and creepy and it really gets under your skin. And it’s got the most scary phone call of all time.
AVC: Did you see it when you were a kid?
JK: No, I didn’t see it as a kid. It’s rarely shown on TV, I think because it’s not considered TV material. But I think I saw it on VHS when I was maybe a teenager, and I’ve seen it a couple of times since, and it really holds up. Like, I saw it two months ago and it still creeped me out. The presence of this thing in the house—this man who you know is there—is so elegant for a slasher film. It’s really one of the best.
AVC: Did you learn anything about filmmaking from it?
JK: I think I did. There’s a real restraint. They don’t use a lot of music. There’s a real empty, kind of cold feeling in that sorority house. I remember it so well and in some ways I feel like I’ve lived in it, after seeing the movie a few times now. The strength of that house as a character was definitely something that inspired me for the house in The Babadook. The characters are also interesting. I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily complex, but they probably are for a slasher flick.
Six months ago, no one associated David Robert Mitchell with horror; he was known primarily for his first feature, an endearingly low-key slice of adolescent life called The Myth Of The American Sleepover. But It Follows, his sophomore effort, has changed all that: Blessed with an ingeniously simple premise that it milks for one big scare after another, the film vaults its writer-director into the ranks of horror’s most promising new voices. Here, he sings the praises of a mostly forgotten British monster movie, one whose use of inevitability as a terror tactic marks it as an unlikely influence on It Follows (which will open in the U.S. early next year).
David Robert Mitchell: Now you told me you think you’ve seen this one.
AVC: It’s a crazy thing. I think I saw this when I was 12 years old or something. And I’ve never been able to figure out how to search for it, mostly because I didn’t know what the monster things were called.
DRM: That is… I have the exact same story! I saw it as a kid, with my dad and maybe with my uncle as well. They’re big horror fans. And years later, I kept remembering these monsters and, like you said, the sounds they made. And remembered some of the images of them approaching on the island. But I couldn’t remember what the movie was called and what the monsters were called. So years ago, I remember starting to do searches for it online and looking for keywords and trying to figure it out. I found other monster movies from the time that were very similar. I would buy them or rent them. And I was always like, “Okay, this is a great movie, but it’s not what I’m looking for.” Finally, I ask my uncle about it—and he’s since passed away—but he was a huge influence on me. He immediately knew: “Oh, it’s the silicates, it’s Island Of Terror.” And he sent it to me on VHS. It’s actually very hard to find. You can get it in the U.K., and I think it’s coming out on Blu-ray in the next couple of weeks, which I’m excited about.
The monsters are very cool. These researchers on this island accidentally create this monster and it’s the silicates. It basically divides and multiplies. This monster will actually liquefy and eat people’s bones. [Laughs.] So it kills you by eating your bones. And it moves really slow. And it has this really cool tentacle. You have a bunch of people on this small island and these monsters are sort of closing in. I used it as a reference in the horror film I just did. Kind of like zombies, it’s a very slow-moving monster, but to me, that’s maybe more disturbing, and probably why this one sat with me for so long. And it’s got Peter Cushing and it’s just well done. You were bringing up the sound effects before. The monsters have this really fantastic sort of electronic sound they make whenever they get close.
AVC: I distinctly remember the sound of human beings getting liquefied. That sound has haunted me since childhood, I think.
DRM: Yeah, it’s like a slurping milkshake sound as they drink your bones. [Laughs.]
Simon Barrett is a talker. Best known for his collaborations with Adam Wingard—including You’re Next and this year’s gloriously entertaining genre pastiche The Guest, which is still trickling into theaters—the screenwriter and occasional director expresses his passion for the medium in breathless streams of informed gushing. Below, he provides the marathon with a deep cut, waxing ecstatic about a little-seen (and hard to acquire) Thai horror movie.
Simon Barrett: I go to these all-night horror marathons occasionally and there’s nothing more frustrating when a movie comes on at 4 a.m. that I’ve seen, like, 20 times. I just know I’m going to fall asleep. So I feel like the goal with these sort of things should be to program films that are high-energy, but also ones where there’s a high certainty that people haven’t seen them before. Coming Soon is completely the kind of film at a 24-hour horror marathon that would snap people awake at, like, 3 a.m. But it never got a U.S. release. There are English-subtitled 35mm prints of it, so it is in the realm of theoretical possibility that it could be programmed. I’m not sure how people would find it. If one of your readers does find it, on some kind of Blu-ray, please tell me!
Anyway, it’s the directorial debut of Sopon Sukdapisit, the writer of the 2004 Thai horror film Shutter, which was remade with Joshua Jackson. But the original Shutter is awesome—of all the post-Ringu, post-Ju-On, long-haired, skinny female ghost Asian movies, Shutter is probably my favorite. It has a great murder mystery to it and also just a really striking approach to character.
[In Coming Soon], the hero is this kid who works in a movie theater and he’s given the task by these gangsters he owes money to to pirate this new, hyped horror movie that no one has seen. And every single time he tries to screen it, anyone who watches it in its entirety dies in this really horrible way. There was a haunting that took place during the production of the film within the film. It’s a cool idea that end of the 35mm era and also the end of the DVD boom, someone would make a horror movie specifically about piracy in Asia. There are some question marks with the haunted-movie conceit. Who color-timed this movie? Who sound-mixed it? Who created the 35mm prints? [Laughs.] Did everyone who did the titles for the movie die too?
AVC: You mentioned some stylistic kinship with J-horror. Can you watch this and discern that it’s a Thai film? Does it have an instantly detectable look or feel?
SB: Oh, yeah. Part of that is Thailand’s censorship laws. You can always tell you’re watching a Thai horror film, because it’s going to be gory in very specific ways. You’ll never see someone put a gun to someone else’s head, because that’s not allowed. And there’s very little nudity. But they will have people being skinned alive for some reason. The Thai film industry tends, in my experience, to be a bit more subdued and quite a bit less technology and youth culture obsessed. A lot of the post-Ringu Japanese horror films kept a teenage-aged cast. The characters in Thai horror films tend to be older and have kids and jobs.
A lot of the J-horror stuff has that video aesthetic, where everything tends to be very high-contrast—bright lights, dark blacks, because that’s kind of the only way to light cheap video and have it look even remotely decent. Thai movies tend to be a much more subdued color palette. And it’s a much more chaste culture than Japan. You rarely see much sexuality depicted. I don’t want to make broad generalizations about an entire country’s genre cinema, because there are always exceptions. But Coming Soon has a completely relentless pace. It’s like a Michael Bay film compared to most Thai horror movies, which are, like, a woman in a cabin, and it’s raining, and maybe her daughter’s a ghost, and then the movie ends. [Laughs.]
9 a.m.: The Real Cancun (2003)
As one of the key figures of mumblecore, and a filmmaker who’s made more than 15 features in the last decade, Joe Swanberg is no newcomer. He is, however, relatively new to horror—a genre he’s contributed to as both writer-director (the original V/H/S, 24 Exposures) and actor (The Sacrament, You’re Next). His unconventional approach to fright fare is reflected in his choice for the marathon, a movie you wouldn’t find in the horror section of Netflix, but which may scare the shit out of you regardless.
Joe Swanberg: My favorite horror movie! Around Halloween, if you’re tired of ghosts and goblins and loud things jumping out at you, I feel like The Real Cancun lets you actually stare into the abyss, at the true horror of being an America and living on Earth at this time. It came out when I was in film school and sort of was part of a string of reality documentaries that were trying to make the jump from the small screen to the movie theater. So my friends and I got really excited about going to see The Real Cancun. I was really into monitoring reality TV at the time anyway. I thought this was something that was going to be big. Cheap to produce, you don’t have to pay writers, you don’t have to pay acting talent—it was really clear this is where the industry was going to go, or at least a big part of it.
But we were just horrified and mystified by the movie. It’s insane. It’s like if you took all your least favorite people and made them the stars of a movie. It’s so crazy. They are terrible to each other. They are just totally shallow. And also, not much happens during the actual week of spring break, which means that the producers then have to suddenly do double duty in crafting this drama and narrative out of what ended up being a pretty boring spring-break week. There’s one big set piece where they attempt to create a big, heroic moment out of the fact that one of them got stung by a jellyfish and another one had to pee on that person’s leg, because they heard that that’s the thing to do when you get stung by a jellyfish.
But the reason it’s one of my favorite horror movies, and it could actually scare people, is the general thrust of the movie—the A story—involves this sort of nerdy guy who has his own thing going on. Somehow, he ends up around all these alpha males and jocky, cheerleader-y people. And as far as I remember, he doesn’t drink, I don’t know if he’s had sex. And he’s basically treated as a total loser, but over the course of the movie, he gains acceptance to a crowd of terrible people by totally going against his own moral code and just following the pack. And then this is presented in the end as “This guy finally got his shit together, look how good he is now.” By joining the worst people you could imagine, he finally achieves some sense of inner peace and group acceptance. It’s really scary.
AVC: That’s evil.
JS: [Laughs] I know, man. When I watch that movie, I really do feel like I’m looking into the void. We, as humans, are fucked. We’re fucked! There’s just no beating these people. There’s more and more of them all the time. And they care about less and less. So it was a pretty seminal movie for me, and I feel like we went to the movie theater and watched it, like, five nights in a row.
AVC: It sounds like it takes all the stuff at the beginning of one of Eli Roth’s films and then says, “Well, you don’t need the horror that happens later, we’ll just stay with these guys.”
JS: [Laughs.] Totally. We’ll take the characters from an Eli Roth movie and then just let them be themselves. Eli Roth makes them smarter. It’s The Green Inferno, but minus Eli Roth’s sense of cleverness and film structure.
10:30 a.m.: Suspiria (1977)
From the apocalyptic vampire movie Stake Land to the family-with-a-secret remake We Are What We Are to this year’s John Carpenter-indebted Cold In July, Jim Mickle has quickly built a reputation as one of the most singular voices in contemporary genre cinema. He’s also an expert at homage, so it makes sense that he would select a bona fide classic to close out this daylong smorgasbord of horror.
AVC: You picked Suspiria.
Jim Mickle: For me, it’s still terrifying, and all the cheesiness and English dubbing aside, it does so many fundamental things that still work. It almost works as a silent movie that’s meant to cause dread and anxiety and fear. I’m a big Dario Argento fan, and I think this is him in his prime—just the perfect amount of control and experimentation. I first watched it when I was, I think, 15 years old and I remember having to turn it off. I couldn’t put my finger on what made it so scary, what made it so effective to me. As a horror movie fan, you rarely have the feeling that something is too much. But I just had that sense that it was too much and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
AVC: Did you eventually figure out why?
JM: The Goblin soundtrack is really one of the biggest things. That score just gets under your skin in a way that’s pretty terrifying. The opening 10 minutes of that movie are just horror-movie perfection. The use of the score, the use of camera angles, camera moves, the primary colors that they’re playing around with. They even make an airport scary. Every trick in the book is being exploited in this basic, not overthought way.
AVC: People don’t associate bright color with horror movies nowadays. Argento’s a good example, but it’s also true of Carpenter. Halloween uses color very carefully.
JM: Very much so. That’s something that we definitely went for with Cold In July—looking back at the importance of color, and, specifically, saturated color.
I think once Saw came out, it taught the world that a horror movie just means green light. Do some kind of puke-green light, and you’ve got your horror movie look. But they were doing some crazy stuff back then—and doing it with film, before you had a guy sitting with a digital intermediate, flipping a couple of switches around to give you your look.
AVC: Argento’s a great stylist. Do you think form is more important in horror movies than it is elsewhere?
JM: It can be. I think horror movies have the most forgiving audience for experimentation and for breaking away from what’s come before. You don’t see romantic comedies trying to outdo what’s come before, but horror filmmaking and horror audiences have this eternal interactive thing, going back and forth.
I think [Suspiria] is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. I like to think that every color and every shape and every piece of architecture has some meaning behind it. It probably does, whether or not they sensed at the time that this particular window configuration was going to create this sense of dead, I think it does. It’s one of the more perfect examples of form carrying over into an effect on an audience.